I wasn’t afraid. I wrote everything
Fatemeh Ekhtesari is an Iranian poet and educated as a midwife. She was sentenced to 11.5 years in prison and 99 lashes for writing about peace, love, freedom and other themes which the Iranian authorities found unacceptable. She is currently living in Lillehammer north of Oslo after having had to flee from her conviction in Iran, and has recently published Vi overlever ikke, the first collection of her poetry translated into Norwegian.
By Jonas E. Kvamsdal
Ekhtesari fled Iran together with fellow poet Mehdi Moosavi, who had also been sentenced to prison. They started their escape in December 2015, and made it partly on foot to Turkey, where they stayed as refugees. The International Cities of Refuge Network (ICORN), which helps authors persecuted for their work, relocated them to Lillehammer in January 2017.
Due to attend the Bergen International Literary Festival in 2021, Ekhtesari had the following discussion with me on her literary works and conditions in Iran.
– The strict dictatorship in Iran makes it hard for individuals to express their opinions. What are your thoughts on living under such a regime?
– In my opinion, any human being who lives under a dictatorial government and thinks and feels only a little should stand up against dictatorship. Is it possible to see a young man being executed just because he expressed his opinion on social media, and then smile and say that nothing happened? I think even if someone smiles and says everything's fine, they know inside themselves that nothing’s good. They’re just afraid. Maybe they prefer to lie for their own advantage.
What made you write poetry under such circumstances?
– I wasn’t afraid. I wrote everything I wanted. I had a kind of magnetic poetic madness. I could give my life to the art. I don’t prescribe that for others. I wouldn’t say it was good or bad. It was me and it was my belief, and I´m glad that I wrote what I believed in. For me, it´s enough when a young person messages me and says that when they read my poems it changed their life. When I read these messages, I tell myself that, after all I´ve been through, all those tough times, they were OK.
Ekhtesari was imprisoned for 38 days in 2013 and later released on bail. The charge concerned her cooperation with an exiled Iranian rapper, who used one of her love poems in a song. I asked her about her thoughts on being in prison.
– Imprisonment and torture are very scary. You’re locked up in a small room for many days, you don’t even have a toilet, a bed, or paper and pencil. You are prohibited from contacting any human beings for months. You’re not allowed to contact your family or even your lawyer. When you’re in the same cell, walking from side to side, in pain, on the hard ground, and you can’t sleep, you think the whole world is forgetting you and that this is the reward you get for writing poetry about what you believe in. I understand those who’re afraid, but I don’t understand those people who prefer the government taking advantage of them over their own interests. How can a person feel happy when they can´t talk about something they love to talk about? How can they be happy when their friends are imprisoned and tortured?
– What’s the difference between publishing books in Iran and Norway?
– We have a fundamental problem in Iran, and that is the existence of a Ministry of Culture. I must say this is the main enemy of culture and art in Iran. Any book which wants to be published must be read by certain people there, and they’ll determine if it’s publishable. Many religious works, children´s books and old collections of poetry are censored. And many writers, like me, censor ourselves. We remove a series of words so the book will not be declared unpublishable. We prefer censoring ourselves to being on a blacklist. We remove words like “kiss” and replace them with three dots. The readers themselves are smart enough to guess what they can put there. However, those three dots have been banned as well.
– All the books that get found out have been collected from bookstores and destroyed in a machine. It happened to my books. It felt like my children were being torn to pieces right in front of my eyes. Fortunately, I don’t have this problem here. One of the reasons why I chose life in Norway instead of imprisonment is freedom of speech. It’s the most valuable human achievement, which we must keep and be careful about so that we don’t lose it. And in my new book, I published everything I wanted to say and any self-censorship related to translation problems. Some poems are untranslatable, some language games or cultural issues can´t be translated correctly.
– This means your new book won´t be published Iran?
Unfortunately, my name and my work are prohibited in Iran anyway. Nobody can mention me in newspapers, magazines or books. All my books are prohibited, even those which had the certificate to be published. So I´m a person on a blacklist.
– What do you want to express through your poems?
– I don’t want to say anything specific to others. My poems address various issues and avoid giving advice, preaching, judging and stuff like that. For me, literature is a place to create beauty as well as to immerse with the readers. Different audiences find different meanings in my poems.
– I can’t deny that human issues and problems of the world today, specifically what´s happening in my country and in the Middle East, are prominent in my poetry. I don’t want to describe the beauty of spring in my poems. They narrate, for example, the story of a girl who wants to go to a stadium to watch her favourite team play. But since women are not allowed to do this, she is arrested and imprisoned, and sets fire to herself in front of the court after her release.
– My poems show this pain to the audience, and want to remind us of the things we simply pass by in modern life. The pain which exists and is forgotten sometimes. I try to open a window and not give readers the view. If they want, they go through it and find something.
– How would you describe the younger generation in Iran?
– The young generation of Iranians “is very protesting”, and angry and critical because of the dictatorship. Our young people are fighting for simple things like freedom from the hijab, and the right of women to divorce and even to go to a stadium and watch a game. When the most basic human right, freedom, is taken away, the young will protest and they will be full of rage. The youth are rebellious. Our parents had this rage and rebellion too, but they expressed it through the Iranian revolution and then vented it through the war between Iran and Iraq. Today’s young generation is under severe pressure and any protests are attempts to release this. The youth are so modern, and they demand to be at the same level as the best countries in the world.
Jonas E. Kvamsdal has been working as a student trainee at the LitFestBergen